BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE
This week's Torah portion begins with the phrase, "After the death of the two sons of Aaron," and then goes on to enumerate the commandments concerning the korbanot (sacrifices) to be offered on Yom Kippur.
This week's Torah portion begins with the phrase, "After the death of the two sons of Aaron," and then goes on to enumerate the commandments concerning the korbanot (sacrifices) to be offered on Yom Kippur. The text specifies the types of korbanot brought by Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (high priest) on the Day of Atonement, including a sin offering (korban chatat) and a burnt offering (korban olah). The text thus presents us with two puzzling issues. First of all, why does the Torah juxtapose the death of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, with the offerings of Yom Kippur - Aaron's sons died three Torah portion's ago? Secondly, the Torah explains that the reason for many of the offerings is "l'chatat - to forgive sin". The Talmud (Tractate Shavuot 8b) says that the sin offering can only atone for one sin. Which sin is the Torah talking about?
The first Mishnah in Tractate Shavuot states that the korban chatat, sin offering, atones for profaning the holy -entering the Temple and eating the holy meat while one is in an impure state. What is tumah, impurity? There are various ways by which a person can become impure, and there are situations in which it may be difficult to determine if one is pure or impure. However, if one comes into physical contact with a corpse, there is no doubt whatsoever that such an individual immediately becomes ritually impure. Why is this so? The corpse represents the end of all potential. When a person is alive, he has the ability to grow and succeed and fulfill his vast potential. With a person's death, all growth comes to a standstill.
Now we can understand the relationship between the offerings of Yom Kippur and the deaths of Aaron's sons. The reason why Aaron's sons died was that they brought an offering without receiving a commandment from Hashem. They knew they had the potential for coming very close to Hashem, but they made the fatal error of allowing their fervor to overcome their respect for the limits set by G-d. After the death of his sons, Aaron might have feared that there was no way that he could ever reach his full potential for closeness to Hashem, and that he would never attain a level of holiness which would permit him to perform the ultimate service of G-d by entering the inner sanctum of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). When faced with this loss of potential, Aaron needed encouragement from G-d that Man could indeed still reach this goal of holiness and closeness with Hashem. G-d told Aaron that once a year, on Yom Kippur, he would be given the opportunity to serve Hashem in a state of complete holiness as a reminder that reaching his full potential was within his grasp.
In addition to Yom Kippur, a sin offering is also brought every Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new month) and on the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot). The Talmud (Tractate Shavuot 9a) cites a dispute concerning the reason for bringing the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh. Rabbi Yehudah says it is brought when one profanes the holy, while Raish Lakish cryptically says it is brought because Hashem wants to "atone for shrinking the moon". Seemingly, these two reasons are unrelated. However, a closer examination of the dispute reveals that the two are, in fact, closely connected.
In the beginning of time, the moon was always full. Later, Hashem made the moon go through cycles of waxing and waning. (This concept is also discussed by Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein in his classic article Moonlight. The perpetually full moon represents an entity that is always functioning at its fullest potential, the ideal state of Man. The waxing and waning moon symbolizes that although Man distances himself from Hashem through his sins, he can still attain his full spiritual potential if he repents sincerely and follows G-d's laws. Hashem designates the ways by which we can become more intimate with Him through the sacrifices and other mitzvot. We should not allow our failures to keep us from continuing our lifelong struggle to achieve our fullest spiritual potential. Hashem gives us the means to atone for our sins through the offerings and the performance of the mitzvot by which we can develop an ever higher level of holiness. Although now it is normal to go through the ups and downs of spirituality, Hashem reminds us that in a perfect world it would be best to operate at our full potential.
On Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the national sin offerings atone for people who, throughout the year, did not realize that they were impure and that as a result had profaned the holy. Even though these people never realize that they did anything wrong, a national sin offering must still be brought for their atonement because they were in an impure state in which they could not possibly reach their full potential. After we die, Hashem will not ask us why we were not as great as Moses or any other righteous person. Rather, Hashem will show us what we could have been and ask us why we failed to reach our full potential. All of life can be looked at as a mission of trying to attain one's potential. When we sin, we distance ourselves from the possibility of achieving our goal. Conversely, each time we subordinate our petty desires and dedicate ourselves to fulfilling the will of Hashem, we come closer to Him, as our sages teach: "Treat His will as if it were your own will, so that He will treat your will as if it were His will" (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:4).
Subordinating our own petty desires to the will of Hashem does not detract from our discovering and acting on our fullest potential. Rather, each person who performs the mitzvot of Hashem with his full heart creates the means, unique to himself, by which he will discover the sanctity within himself, thereby fulfilling his spiritual potential. The three festivals are special opportunities given to us by Hashem to help us focus on these issues. It is as if, through the festivals, Hashem is sounding reveille to wake us up out of our slumber. At each festival, He is saying, "Don't go through life asleep spiritually. Wake up early in the morning, early in the life span allotted to you, while your potential is great. Put on your uniform carefully, i.e. clothe yourself in the performance of mitzvot according to the directions given in the training manual (the Torah), and be all that you can be in the army of G-d."
During the period between Passover and Shavuot in which we presently find ourselves, we have an additional opportunity given to us by Hashem to wake up and realize our full potential. Each day we count the omer over a period of seven complete weeks, and on the fiftieth day we celebrate Shavuot, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah, when we recognize that through our performance of the Torah's mitzvot we can each find our unique path to our fullest spiritual capabilities. It is up to us. We can sleep through reveille, or we can rouse ourselves to improve, to learn and to grow - to be all that we can be.
Ariel Sloan, a native Atlantan, is studying at the yeshiva Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.
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